How to Spend Winter in Santa Cruz

You can’t go wrong with the little beach side town of Santa Cruz! Up until now, I’ve mainly talked about what you can do in the warm months to soak up those lovely rays of sunshine, but today I’m here to tell you that Santa Cruz is just as fun to visit in the winter.

Although it definitely gets a lot colder in the Monterey Bay than it does down in Southern California, Santa Cruz is still blessed with fairly temperate weather year round.

Santa Cruz, California

This last December temperatures dipped as low as the 30s, but generally it stays around 40 or 50 degrees fahrenheit in the winter, which is why I’ve still included a few outdoor activities on this list.

Seymour Marine Discovery Center

The Seymour Marine Discovery Center is located near West Cliff Drive and is the second best thing (and less expensive option) to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Run by UC Santa Cruz, there’s a lot of interesting marine life to get to know here year round. If you’re missing the beach because of the colder weather, you can still come mingle with sea life and even touch a shark!

Seymour Marine Discovery Center - Santa Cruz, California

You can also visit Mr. Blue while you’re there, the highlight to any of my elementary school field trips. Mr. Blue is one of the largest whale skeletons in the world. At 87 feet long and 18 feet high, you can start to get the gist for just how magnificent these creatures are.

Seymour Marine Discover Center is open Tuesday-Sunday from 10am -5pm. Admission costs $8 for adults and $6 for children, seniors, and students.

Whale Watching

Speaking of whales, the winter is prime whale watching season in the Monterey Bay. Although you can often spot seven different species of whales and seven separate species of dolphin and porpoise year-round, 20,000 beautiful gray whales pass through the Monterey Bay every year from December through April.

Whale Watching in the Monterey Bay - Santa Cruz, California

You’ll likely see an abundance of sea lions, seals, otters, and tons of different species of birds too. This is one of the best spots on the California coast to go whale watching.

Stagnaro’s Santa Cruz Whale Watching is probably the most popular and well-known company for this experience. Tours run on average 3.5 hours and set you back about $50 per person.

Monarch Butterflies

Potentially my favorite fall/winter activity in Santa Cruz is seeing the thousands of Monarch Butterflies at Natural Bridges State Beach. On average there are around 100,000 monarch butterflies that migrate to Natural Bridges every year and stay from October to February, although November is generally the height of the season.

Monarch Butterflies at Natural Bridges - Santa Cruz, California

That many delicate butterflies in one spot is truly a sight to behold even if you’re not a butterfly person – but honestly, how could you not be a butterfly person!?

This is a FREE activity and there are even free tours on the weekends given by docents at 11am & 2pm both Saturday and Sunday while the butterflies are still there. No reservations are necessary as long as you have a group of under 10 people.

Año Nuevo State Reserve

Another favorite field trip during elementary school was heading out to the desolately beautiful Año Nuevo State Reserve during elephant seal breeding season. Up to 10,000 elephant seals come to breed, give birth, and molt their skin every year from December to March.

Ano Nuevo State Reserve - California

During breeding season, the Natural Preserve is only accessible through guided walks due to the importance of keeping a safe distance away to not disrupt breeding and aggravate the males. And because this is such a sought after experience, it’s recommended you book ahead of time on Reserve America.

There is also a Marine Education Center and plenty of dunes and beaches to explore around the State Reserve. The reserve is about a 30 minute drive from Santa Cruz. The entrance fee into the park is $10 per car and the public seal walks are $7 per person.

Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History

If you’re one of those people who loves spending cold days learning new things in a warm museum, the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History is a great way to spend a winter afternoon in the city. Located in the heart of downtown Santa Cruz, the museum is a mix of local art and cherished history.

Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History - California

A nice aspect about the MAH is that it’s a decently sized museum with plenty to offer, but not overwhelmingly so. It’s a manageable sized learning center that you could easily enjoy through the course of an afternoon. They also have a rockin’ gift shop.

The museum is open Tuesday-Sunday from 11am-5pm and only costs $5 for general admission and $3 for students, teens and seniors. Children under 12 are free and there is a free admission day on the first Friday of every month.

UC Santa Cruz Arboretum

The UCSC Arboretum is for the plant lovers and nature enthusiasts. It’s a research and teaching facility that also offers 300 different plant families for the general public to appreciate, including rare and threatened plants.

UC Santa Cruz Arboretum - California

The Arboretum sprawls over 148 acres and acts as a living museum of the plant kingdom. It’s the perfect spot to explore on a not-so-cold winter day. Make sure to take a drive around the forested UC campus while you’re there as well, you won’t be disappointed with the stunning nature you’ll see.

The UCSC Arboretum is open every day from 9:00am to 5:00pm and is $5 for general entry and $2 for children. They have free days on the first Tuesday of every month.

Glaum Egg Ranch

I had to include the Glaum Egg Ranch just for eccentric purposes and because it’s oh so very Santa Cruz. The ranch is family-owned and 100% cage free. When you visit the Aptos ranch, get your eggs from the Glaum Egg Vending Machine. It is hilarious. I promise it’ll be the most unique egg purchase you will probably make in your life.

Glaum Egg Ranch - Aptos, California

The price for 22 eggs from the vending machine is $4.

Go to the Movies

Santa Cruz has a variety of movie theaters to choose from, especially in downtown. The city has the mainstream Regal Cinema 9 (where I worked in high school and which has super comfy reclining seats) and the Riverfront Twin, but there are also two indie theaters downtown called the Nickelodeon and the Del Mar.

The Del Mar has to be my favorite movie theater in Santa Cruz, an art-deco style theater in a historic building that used to be a vaudeville theater. Built in 1936, it’s the oldest theater in the city of Santa Cruz and some locals (like my mom) even like to say that it’s a little bit haunted.

Del Mar Theater - Santa Cruz, California

The best part about the Del Mar besides being in a super cool old building are the concessions! You won’t find your standard movie theater fare here. Instead you’ll find vegan brownies, frozen treats from the local creamery, and quality organic non-GMO kerneled popcorn that’s popped in organic canola oil, and which you can top with nutritional yeast and real butter. None of that partially hydrogenated soybean oil here.

With 18 screens to choose from just in downtown alone, you can see where I get my movie theater obsession from. You’re spoiled for choice and you can generally find just about any movie that’s playing right now. The perfect Santa Cruz experience for a rainy and/or cold day.

Craft Beer to warm your soul

Lastly, I had to mention the craft beer scene because a.) it has taken off in Santa Cruz in the last few years, b.) I LOVE craft beer and c.) there is nothing better on a cold night than a smooth stout to warm your soul.

New Bohemia Brewing, Santa Cruz, California

Santa Cruz now has a number of breweries to choose from, including Discretion, Santa Cruz Mountain, Uncommon, Santa Cruz Ale Works, New Bohemia, Seabright (the original!), Steel Bonnet, and Sante Adairius Rustic Ales.

I would personally recommend Discretion, Uncommon, New Bohemia, and Seabright Brewery if you can’t hit all of them.

New Bohemia Brewing, Santa Cruz, California

The only brewery that technically doesn’t have a public tasting room is Uncommon, but you can easily book a tour to see the brewery and try their beers in person by calling and booking an appointment at (831) 621-6270.

If you’re looking to try a great variety of different styles and breweries I would very much recommend checking out the new Beer 30 in Soquel and the local’s downtown favorite, 99 Bottles – both of which offer an astounding selection of local and foreign beers.

The other option if you don’t want to be driving or Ubering all over town is to hop on the Brew Cruz. The Santa Cruz Microbrewery Tour is 4 hours, $69 per person, and takes you along the local beer trail in a classic hippie school bus in true Santa Cruz fashion.

Where to Stay 

For me, I love staying at cozy accommodations in the winter that allow you to just relax, unwind, and preferably read by a toasty fire with a glass of whisky. If you’re looking for a unique accommodation that offers all of these things (besides the whisky – you’ll have to BYO!), I would recommend checking out the Adobe on Green Street B&B.

The Adobe on Green Street B&B - Santa Cruz, California

I had the pleasure of staying at the Adobe this last December, and I could not recommend it higher as a prime spot to cozy up in the wintertime. Check out my full review of the place here if you’re interested!

Note: The Adobe on Green Street generously hosted me for the duration of my stay, but all opinions, as always, are my own.


How to Spend Winter in Santa Cruz, California

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Have you been to Santa Cruz in the winter? What are your favorite winter activities to do in your hometown?

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Mimi McFadden
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Mimi McFadden

Travel Writer/Blogger at The Atlas Heart
Mimi founded The Atlas Heart to create a community of travelers inspired to see the world. The Atlas Heart is a space where you'll find anecdotes on slow travel, craft beer, outdoor adventures, and all the eccentric bits in between that this world has to offer.
Mimi McFadden
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  1. I love going to see the butterflies at Natural Bridges! My parents used to take us when we were little but I’ve recently been going with my friends. I’ve never been to the museum or discovery center though, I’ll definitely have to make a trip to them! But I’ve definitely gone out and enjoyed myself some beer 🙂

    1. I love the butterflies, Natural Bridges is such a tranquil and stunning place. I’m glad you’ve enjoyed some of the beersies, I’ve been impressed with how many breweries there are popping up everywhere around my hometown!

  2. Ohhh 99 Bottles and Seabright, bringing back not so fond memories of my early 20s. Too many nights spent drinking there. Oh, and the Red Room. Another bright spot is Gayle’s, definitely worth a stop even though they’re always busy.

    1. It’s funny because I’ve only really just discovered the nightlife and bars in Santa Cruz in the last few years because I grew up there and left for college when I was 18 – but Seabright Brewery, especially, was one I always used to go to with my dad for dinner near the ocean. That place is great. I love the key lime pie from Gayle’s, so good!!

  3. I love Natural Bridges, but haven’t seen any butterflies so I will have to hit up soon! 99 Bottles is also a great choice. If you have never been to the crepe place or Mariannes ice cream those are musts.

  4. With the exception of the Brew Cruz, the old town looks much the same. And as for local trivia, do you remember what the building housing the Museum of Art & History used to be? 😉

    1. I know! I was excited to discover the Brew Cruz on this most recent trip, although they were taking a break for the holidays while I was there so I didn’t get to experience myself. And was it the old county jail?

      1. Yup, the jail with open barred windows so walking by incurred many, uh, colorful hoots and harassments! Can’t say I’ve ever lived in a city where the criminal element was so centrally located.
        It’s much better suited as a museum.

  5. That looks and sounds so beautiful! I think I could just sit all day on the water there and just relax all day… and i would be satisfied although seeing the butterflies at Natural Bridges sure looks like it would be wonderful, too! Thanks for this great information!

  6. I LOVE This post and I am a total fan of Sana Cruz!! I used to visit San Jose a lot to see relatives so we always made time for Santa Cruz….I have never been in the winter…would love to be there instead of here in Cold Seattle!!

    Thanks for sharing!
    Fashion and Travel

    1. Thanks Varlerie! I know what you mean, I’m living up here in Portland now and it’s just not quite the same beachy weather I grew up with in Santa Cruz, haha. Hope you make it back again soon!

  7. Do you live in Santa Cruz? I live right over the hill in San Jose. Some good finds in here, I’ve never heard of Glaum Ranch, I need to check them out!

    1. Yes, well at least I used to, I grew up in Santa Cruz! San Jose is a great spot too, I’ve finally had more of a chance to explore it since I’ve been stateside this past year. I just heard of Glaum ranch this past trip surprisingly and I knew I had to include it on the list. 🙂

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